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Environmental NGOs Seek to Challenge Alleged Culture of Programmed Obsolescence and Replace It with a Market of More Durable Products

On 2 April 2015, a joint mission statement released by seven leading EU environmental organisations laid out plans which could lead to added costs for businesses in Hong Kong and elsewhere, which manufacture electronic and electrical goods, as well as textiles, furniture, and other products, for sale to EU consumers. The statement calls for steps to be taken towards decreasing so-called planned obsolescence, and creating a circular economy.

The joint mission statement avers that these moves, from a linear to a circular economy, could be gradual, as well as virtually harmless for companies, yet enormously beneficial for the environment.

The proposals detailed in the statement are but suggestions, while the Commission has released several publications related to sustainable consumption and production (including the 2008 Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy (SCP/SIP) Action Plan). In the joint mission statement, the various organisations describe their desire to work with EU regulatory authorities and to apply their proposed policies inside the EU (Europe having an extremely large consumption footprint), through national and EU policy makers.

Ultimately if some or all of these changes were to occur, even at a national level, Hong Kong companies could be required to rethink the design of many of their products should they wish to export them to EU consumers.

It is alleged that the rate of consumption reached today is far from sustainable. In order for their customers to buy more, it is also alleged that certain companies not only make bad quality products designed to last only a short time, but they then force their customers to buy a new product by making it either impossible or financially unviable to have it repaired. As the report mentions, "half the respondents to a recent EU survey said they decided against repairing a faulty product in the past 12 months because the repair costs were too high. 92% agreed that the lifespan of products available on the market should be indicated".

What comes out of the report is how beneficial the NGOs claim the transition towards a circular economy would be. The main argument is that it would partially relieve the stress on our finite natural resources, thus ensuring our planet can provide for future generations. However the main concern wherever this issue is raised is its impact on the economy. The statement says that not only would these moves increase any given brand's reputation as high quality and "durable", but it would also offer "a significant potential for job creation if labour is taxed less and resource competition more. Owing to the labour intensive nature of reuse and repair activities the potential for job creation in this area is many times higher that recycling". Finally, it points out the many benefits for society that would arise should legislation be implemented to make companies produce more sustainably, such as increased innovation in "repair, reuse and repurposing".

Coming to the proposals made by the NGOs, They have described in their statement what they would like to see materialised:

  • The provision by manufacturers of independent reuse and repair set-ups that are financed by them, in order to ensure their products work properly for as long as stated by them. This would include "free-of-charge access to repair and service documentation together with any troubleshooting and diagnostic tools, circuit diagrams, machine codes and hardware".
  • Manufacturers and EU regulatory authorities working with the NGOs to make sure that components in EEE are adhesive-free and are easy to replace using common, non-proprietary tools.
  • Establishing requirements concerning the design of products so that they have a minimum life span and also "ensure non-destructive disassembly of products into individual parts and components for reuse".
  • Giving customers access to information concerning the average expected lifetime for each specific model.
  • Ensuring that companies make spare parts "available and affordable" for a certain number of years (depending on the product's average expected lifetime) following the last product batch.
  • Creating a system for products placed on the European market by which they can be evaluated, based on their durability and reparability.
  • Lowering taxes on repair services, while taxes on products designed for single use or that use lots of natural resources should be increased.
  • Looking into extending minimum legal product warranties (naturally this would depend on the type of product), thereby increasing manufacturers' responsibilities.

While these changes may seem very drastic, the statement also says that its objectives include facilitating "a constructive debate amongst relevant stakeholders on designing EEE and other products for reparability and durability, as well as discuss potential new business models related to reparable products".

The statement points out that the EEE sector must be one of the first sectors in which these changes must occur, owing to the fact that it is one of the fastest growing. As many Hong Kong traders will be aware, a great number of the products concerned are made in mainland China. However, the statement then goes on to say that these reforms should also be applicable to the textiles and furniture sectors at a later date.

The next step in this process would be "a horizontal approach across different policy areas". The NGOs would like to see new policy, on both a national and European scale, but would also wish to work with existing policies to see how they could make consumption more sustainable. The statement suggests facilitating designing products for repair through the Ecodesign, WEEE and Batteries Directives. These are all laws that many Hong Kong traders will already be well aware of. It then goes on to cite a number of laws and directives that could help reinforce the abovementioned plans (including the 2014 Directive on Consumer Rights (2011/83/EC) and the Energy Labelling Directive (2010/30/EU)).

The European Commission has said that by the end of 2015 it plans to launch "a new, more ambitious" strategy for moving from a linear economy to a circular one, which could certainly be applicable in order to bring about these changes.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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